The Color and the Shape

In Djibouti City, art is often considered a luxury, occasionally even a disgrace, and painters struggle to find an audience and vindication for their work

By / June 2015

Yahye is a Djiboutian painter. Before I met Yahya, I confess, I had low expectations. I had seen Djiboutian paintings, or thought I had. Rows of them lean up against the curb by the Oil Libya gas station near the port. More paintings line the sidewalk across from the Cinquiéme grocery store.

These paintings are garish: orange sunrises with little nuance or depth of color, women carrying babies, their bodies devoid of dimension and personality, trees sketched with no character, animals painted with little imagination. One unrealistic painting shows camel sillouhettes in front of a towering acacia tree on the shore of a mountain-ringed lake. Another has two camels walking between mountains toward a cartoonishly red, orange, green, blue, and white starkly rendered rainbow.

The only people who buy these paintings are tourists and expatriates and I often wondered where they wound up once they got home. I wondered about the artists and I wondered if this was the best Djibouti had to offer. I knew there had to be more. But where to find it?

The difficulty for Djiboutian visual artists is that there are few places to sell art, few places to display it, especially for artists with a vision beyond tourists and foreigners. Hotels have generic art hanging on the walls, restaurants and places of business have photos of the President of Djibouti and maybe a black and gold verse from the Quran written in Arabic. Homes are often decorated with utilitarian nails on the wall for hanging scarves or purses, bunches of plastic flowers, glittering spiral paper cutouts, or nothing.

Occasionally there will be a framed photo of a bowl of fruit, a fancy red sports car, or the Kaba’a in Mecca. If there is a photo other than the president, it is of a relative, most often a young man, who is going to university far away or who has died. La Nation, the local newspaper, occasionally hires artists to illustrate a piece or an advertisement, as does the bi-monthly women’s magazine Marwo. These are typically black and white cartoons that tell a story, about a woman, for instance, who is frustrated because she is working all day in the kitchen while her husband and children sleep or a visual image reminding people of the law prohibiting female genital mutilation.

And then I met Yahye. He is a young man who exhibited an interest in colors and shapes his first year in school. He didn’t finish high school but earned a diploma in art plastique, or creative arts, in 2006 from the Djiboutian Institute of Art. He likes to work in the abstract and mentions Picasso, cubism, and fauvism. At the same time, however, he has several naturalistic paintings of everyday scenes – women weaving baskets, the Hammoudi mosque in Place Rimbaud downtown. Yahye’s paintings show what I had been looking for – depth of color and vision, thoughtfulness, and craft.

He mostly works at home where he lives with his parents and siblings in the sprawling Balbala suburb but he stores several of his finished pieces at the Institute of Art, pieces that he plans to exhibit when opportunities arise. He says he can work through any amount of distraction and noise. Once he enters the painting, the noise of the crowded neighborhood – goats, soccer games, neighbors shouting news – don’t bother him.

Money for purchasing supplies is always hard to come by but he can usually find what he needs at the Nougaprix, the grocery store in the center of town. He is also beginning to experiment with making his own paint or adding texture to the images by using different colored sand from the beaches that surround the peninsula of Djibouti City.

Occasionally the Sheraton or Kempinski Hotels will showcase an artist’s work in their lobbies and this is where Yahye hopes to display his paintings. The US ambassador or a representative of the European Union might request a display, a makeshift gallery, for an event. When these opportunities arise, artists like Yahye are eager to put their best pieces forward and weeks of planning go into creating the galleries. Rarely, a painting will be purchased, almost always to be hung inside an office few mainstream Djiboutians will see. Perhaps in another country, perhaps behind the barriers and walls and gates of foreign diplomats.

Some of Yahye’s paintings of the downtown Hammoudi Mosque hang in Djiboutian government offices. He is also a regular contributor to Marwo. The magazine mostly focuses on fashion, relationship advice, and successful Djiboutians – singers, athletes, and story-tellers. Yahye’s signature on sketches is now one of the first things I look for when I flip through the pages.

He shows me a preview of what will be in an upcoming edition, a series of images of a man and woman who are infertile. She cries and becomes depressed, he grows hopeless and leaves her. The final image in the series shows him joining the Somali-based terror group al-Shabaab. Yahye says the point is to show how couples need to communicate and support each other, how grief and loss can lead to poor decision-making.

Finding a way to display their art is challenging enough for most Djiboutians but creating it is even harder. The trouble is multi-faceted and deeply rooted. First, art is considered a luxury. In families barely above the poverty line the thought of spending money on paint and canvas instead of on staple foods and electricity is absurd. To spend time on drawings instead of hauling water, cutting branches to burn as fuel, or guarding the sheep is a frivolous waste. And yet Mouhoumed Mahamad Mahamoud, director of the small Djiboutian Institute of Art (IDA), understands the importance of creating, of art, of imagination.

IDA is tucked away down a bumpy side street across from the state high school, past old crumbling apartment buildings and boys playing ping pong. The area used to be a high point for culture and entertainment with IDA sitting in the shadow of the now defunct French Odeon movie theater. When movies played there people who didn’t purchase tickets could sit in the street and listen. The theater hasn’t functioned in almost ten years but the art institute presses on with several drawing and painting classrooms, a mirror-lined ballet and martial arts studio, a music room with a handful of saxophones, keyboards, and guitars, and an open air stage area for performing dramas and cultural dances.

Mouhoumed equates art with life and hopes to encourage more people, especially youth, to pursue the arts. They have time to watch music videos and stop at internet cafés or to play football, surely, in his opinion, they have time to paint, draw, sing, or learn to play an instrument, all of which is taught for free at the Institute.

A Tunisian teacher at the Institute explained another aspect of the problem for artists. “Here, you find some people who think it is un-Islamic to paint, to create something, because only Allah is the true Creator,” he said. This is especially relevant if the image being formed is of a human being. Animals, trees, plants, water, these are borderline acceptable though still problematic for some.

But many people discourage creating images of humans, whether through photography or drawing. The teacher talked about parents who forbid their children from coming once they discovered the kids painted pictures of people. “I never heard this in Tunisia,” he told me, “and we started studying art in primary school and we are Muslims, too.”

Many Djiboutian artists follow their creative drive and do paint people but there is often an inner, hidden conflict they must wrestle with which carries with it the risk of hindering their creativity or showing up in subtle ways on the canvas. Yahye paints people sometimes and is a committed Muslim. He struggles to articulate this conflict as he shows me a painting of geometric shapes in bold, primary colors, and a painting of two young boys. They are surrounded by a foggy, swirling darkness and the older boy tips a yellow jerry can of water into the younger boy’s mouth.

“They are tahariibayaan,” he says. Trying to flee, to cross a border in search of a better life like the hundreds of people heading to Europe in rickety boats from North Africa. “You can see the older brother, how he is taking care of the younger brother. This gesture,” he points to the jerry can, “shows a grand humanity.” Yahye wanted to present this image of the dignity of those who are desperate even as he wanted to honor Allah and his faith. He is still wrestling through how to reconcile the two.

I didn’t see the original copy of my favorite piece that Yahya painted. It was being wrapped for display at the European Union headquarters but he showed me the image on his phone. He and the other artists requested that I not photograph their work.

Brightly colored, overlapping circles, reflecting sunlight off their curved edges filled the canvas. The painting made me think of colored Christmas tree lights, the way they looked when I took my glasses off as a child, all blurred edges and intersecting colors. “Like when kids play with soap and blow bubbles,” Yahye said. “Happy and light.” He calls the piece “Joie.” Joy.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a contributing writer to EthnoTraveler and many other publications, lives and writes in Djibouti City.